I recently liked a boy who didn’t like me in the way I wanted to be liked. He liked another girl, and it hurt. I was more raw than usual, sandpapered down by a few recent intimacy losses. The looming pattern of it made me despondent.
I thought I would spend the rest of my life alone, understood by nobody. I would remain on the outskirts, looking in, built out of a substance made for rejection. I was in a state of itchy agitation; like I kept wanting to reach out but having nothing to grab. Life kept proving me right.
Then I did acid, 250ug, somewhat for the purpose of solving this problem. It was in an AirBnb in the woods of upstate New York, and the house was woody smelling and there was a film crew. I spent the first hours crying, staring at the camera, trying to paint; but finally I rolled outside into the rain and found myself alone. I couldn’t see into the windows, and it was a distant-feeling cold.
I felt alone out there, and I let myself feel alone. It barreled through me, where all my fears became true. My isolation became a body; I stepped into it and wore it as mine, and it was tangible flesh, and its weight was my weight. I bent over in my body of isolation and sobbed. It was a screaming, ongoing pain that I couldn’t think around, couldn’t reason with. It hurt it hurt it hurt.
I saw that I had been trying to reduce the pain by placing expectations on other people and the world, that I wanted someone else to save me from this, to swoop in with the delicious story that the pain was wrong, as if it had been making an incorrect claim or breaking a law. And that’s what I thought, on some level – that there was a perversion of reality, that this pain should not be. And if the pain should not be, then intimacy with others is what should be, and the gap between myself and others became a burden that became both mine and theirs to resolve. Of course I’d never had these thoughts explicitly – but somewhere, deep down, that’s what had been happening.
But here, on the deck in the cliche rain, I couldn’t tell the pain that it was wrong, and I didn’t resist it. The body of isolation I wore was mine, and I wore it with agony and love. I surrendered to it, died to it, and forgot what I had been.
Usually my pain was held in a great reservoir above my head, and it was too much to feel at once, so I would open a very small drain, and the suffering arose in the narrow pressure of that release. But here I tore the reservoir open, and the pain was immense but pressureless, because there was no contrast between want and do not want. I found that I could bear it. I could bear it infinitely.
This pain should be. I welcomed it.
And against this I felt a deep gratitude for the speckled moments where I felt not-alone – in flashes of strangers on the street, the memories of lovers, the odd frustration of my family. The intensity of the isolation channeled an equally intense relief into these moments, and I imagined stars made starlike by the night.
It was as though I’d picked up a flat river-rock, and on one side was printed LOVE and the other PAIN, and that both were pressed into my fist, that they were a singular weight, that it was one thing.
I still wear the body of isolation, and with it is an ongoing pain. I can feel it settled into me, every day, like a cradle – but the body of isolation is also the body of love; a rotating mask, each bolted onto the backstage of the other. It is the isolation which allows me love, and love which allows me isolation. I am suffocated by gratitude.
I found out I wasn’t immortal shortly before I turned 19. I’d been religious, so I assumed death was a just a transfer to heaven. Losing my faith meant I had to face the fact that my identity would end, and it was terrifying for many years.
Then I heard Alan Watts frame it as such: When we imagine dying, we imagine something like being locked in a dark box forever and ever. But once we imagine the experience of being dead, then we’re not really imagining death at all.
Experience is the only thing to be afraid of, and being dead isn’t an experience. If we are afraid of a non-experience, then at some level we are imagining an experience.
I think about this when it comes to the Great Isolation. I don’t mean the Great Isolation in inability to find intimacy, in being ejected from the tribe, or in standing outside alone in the rain. I mean it in the sense of perpetual solitude inside your own mind; that no matter how much you love someone, it will always be your projection of their understanding; that this is a dream, that you alone are the one who generates the experiences you have of being understood. “Isn’t it lonely?” people ask, when I describe my solipsism. The fear of undertaking the Great Isolation is the fear of loneliness.
The body of isolation is the body of love, and this body needs an Other to exist – much as you cannot feel love without an Other, you cannot feel isolation without an Other. And so, if you feel lonely when you imagine the Great Isolation, then you are not truly imagining the Great Isolation, much as if you feel afraid when you imagine death, then you are not truly imagining death.
Loneliness is not terrifying. It’s not some great existential shadow or a condemnation to a psychedelic hell – it’s just the other side of love.
12 thoughts on “The Body of Isolation”
I struggle to imagine what that might mean like. Is the Great Isolation like being detached from your perception of others’ perceptions of you?
Let thought become the beautiful Woman.
Cultivate your mind and heart to that depth
That it can give you everything
A warm body can.
Why just keep making love with God’s child form
When the Friend Himself is standing
Let prayer become your beautiful Lover
And become free,
Become free of this whole world
– From: ‘The Gift’
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Personally I’ve come to metaphorize isolation as a feature of the landscape. It is where I live; it is my home. I form inspired figures of others, but I cannot leave to meet the inspiring souls, and they cannot come in to visit.
Sometimes, falling in love, I am barreled down by the illusion that the gap between two minds can be closed. My understanding of the other is a tangled mix of things I believe to be true, things I suspect to be true, and things I want to be true. But as I add to the substance of the mess, it only serves to more sharply outline the voids of unknowingness. I find that these absences make the bulk of the figure as my wishful truths are driven out by sharpening barriers of believed and suspected truths. The Great Isolation is unaltered, but it feels like more of a thing as I slam myself against it for the umpteenth time. But anyhow I have so far always lost the company of those who most effectively inspire this madness. There is some comfort in observing distances I won’t even try to bridge.
Thank you for writing this – the imagery is beautiful, and it rings true to me. You are among the souls I would love to create a more detailed depiction of.
Hey, This is a beautiful post and also a topic I have spent a lot of time thinking about. The concept of ‘great isolation’ is something I have been establishing a relationship with since puberty, but which began to settle deeply into me on an intellectual level after a series of conversations with my brother which left me with the striking phrase ‘we are existentially alone’. Pretty much since than, I realize I have been aiming to accept this as a fact as if the only obvious answer was to make myself the only person I would ever need. My isolation became compounded also by the sense I had that any act I made towards other people that didn’t come from me as a Whole (completely self-loving and emotionally self-sustaining human) was going to be an act of harm — that I was either taking something or else causing harm out of some unknown self-interest or insecurity. This is changing for me now, partly owing to the fact that I Do love myself more and Do feel more whole (also oweing to focusing, vipassana, other tricks), but I am starting to understand that the isolation need not be so great. It seems that, in truth, I can mesh with other ‘souls,’ but not in the ways I had wanted or expected. Nowadays, I feel less distressed about the fact that people won’t understand my mind, but I am also writing more. Actually I mostly find comfort in feeling like I have the capacity simply to try and transcend myself a little, but in the aims of receiving others or offering something. I can seek to understand them, knowing I won’t fully, but I can also provide care for them. It’s like recognizing that we are all potted plants and I can’t get inside your pot but I can look closely at your features and try as hard as possible to keep my own mind open towards you, but also, I can water you and offer fresh bits of soil, and this thought is blurring the edges of my solitude.
On a another note, I had an experience the first time I did mushrooms where I realized I could turn towards my sorrow and that it was like an infinite spiraling tunnel, and that I could go into it and get lost in it forever, but I also realized that I could also look away and that it was ok to look away. This was interesting. Next time I do them, I’ll check on that tunnel and see if I shouldn’t look away or what.
Thank you for this. That Great Isolation is with me as well. Recently my partner and I went poly, with both of us being interested in it, but probably mainly me driving it. Paradoxically I start feeling extremely wounded and rejected on days like today where there’s an ocean between us and I basically know what she’s up to (which I don’t want to take away from her). Also the hangover doesn’t help. But reading your post very much did and I’m beginning to see some light again.
Hang in there, friend. The projection of your mind I have in mine is beautiful and much appreciated.
So, I want to provide a contrasting point of view to the bit about death here; I discussed this earlier in this blog post (and which I’m basically repeating here in slightly shorter form 😛 ). The alternative point of view is that the important thing is not experiences but goals, preferences; and preferences may extend past one’s death. So, sure, dying may not yield negative experiences, but what’s important is that to die is to be thwarted, to lose any ability to steer the future towards what one hopes to accomplish. (Yes, yes, I know I’m just recapitulating Omohundro here. 😛 ) Again, one will not experience any of this, but that’s not the point — to have goals in the external world is to say, it does not matter whether I see it or how I feel about it, what matters is whether it happens; and if I am tricked into believing it has happened when it has not, that is a bad thing (Omohundro again!).
(Death isn’t really the main subject of your post, I know, so let me just say that I don’t think saying “goals are to be accomplished, not modified away” precludes accepting what one cannot change. You just have to think of goals in terms of better vs worse rather than as acceptable vs intolerable.)
Now there is a certain extent to which this goal-oriented point of view does not make sense for humans; like, Yudkowsky’s “murder pill” argument makes intuitive sense, but the old joke about “I don’t like spinach, and I’m glad I don’t, because if I liked it I’d eat it, and I just hate it”, while being entirely coherent from the goal point of view, definitely seems a bit off when applied to humans. Nonetheless I don’t think it should be ignored entirely in favor of the experience-oriented point of view, because neither, I think, do we want to be the sort of person who would indeed take the murder pill.
Wow. This post is… the answer to a question I didn’t know I was asking. This is just beautiful. Thank you.
(Any tips on how to think like this without dropping acid?)
Meditation, probably. Vipassana? Focusing? Circling? One thing I like to do is get a list of everything I’m afraid of happening and scream in my head that it’s all true, or if I’m in pain I try saying ‘yes’ over and over.
You are a wonderful human!
I like your ideas here on the difference on the subjectiveness of that exact kind of pain and how it seems to last in a very unique way. Especially in how it relates to loneliness, but not just that, but the loneliness related to that person and context.
I did some research on this stuff and soon found that someone did it first. Look up the term “Limerence”. It’s an emotional state that seems to only occur in these situations, especially ones of hope, expectation of reciprocation, and dreaming/imagining/intrusive thinking of a person.